Tag Archives: Florence

Such Great Heights

September 3, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The first thing you notice about Wyman Heights is the beautiful view facilitated by the storied neighborhood’s riverside, hilltop perch. The petite enclave, situated on the cusp of Florence and Ponca Hills, spoons with a deep bend in the Missouri River where views of the adjacent waterway and nearby city provide an entirely unique perspective.

Speaking of perspective, Jody duRand has an interesting one, having grown up in Wyman Heights in the ’60s and ’70s, and returning to live there in 2010 when she and husband Roger duRand bought their dream home. 

“Most people don’t know it’s there—this little gold mine in the hills,” she says of Wyman Heights.

Her parents left the neighborhood in 1991, and the self-described “North O girl at heart” lived for a time in a Florence home designed by her father, Del Boyer of Boyer & Biskup Architects.

The duRands nearly closed on a house in the Memorial Park area when her favorite Wyman Heights home—the one she’d admired since childhood, the proverbial belle of the neighborhood real estate ball—came up for sale. 

Cathy Katzenberger

“I loved this house more than anything in the world,” duRand says of her 1933 home. “When we got the chance to buy it, it was day one, full offer, we’re taking it as is. It’s a really special, beautiful house with so much charm and a view you just can’t get anywhere else in the city. Plus, this [neighborhood] is my home.”

Kristine Gerber, executive director at Restoration Exchange Omaha, agrees that Wyman Heights is a “hidden gem.”

“Very few know where it is,” Gerber says. “Its views of the Missouri River to the east and downtown Omaha to the south are incredible. Neighbors love that it’s this quiet oasis, yet in minutes they can be on I-680 to get to wherever they need to go.”

In 1905, Omaha real estate agent/banker Henry Wyman took a shine to the hills north of Florence—then known as Florence Heights and Valley View Heights. Wyman envisioned the area, with its breathtaking views, as the perfect spot for “an idyllic retreat for Omaha’s elite,” according to research gathered by Restoration Exchange Omaha in preparation for the organization’s 2017 neighborhood tour. Wyman spent two decades gathering land, planting trees, and grading and paving North 29th and 30th streets before the neighborhood was replatted and rechristened “Wyman Heights” in 1925.    

Tudor Revival homes populated the area from the late 1920s into the 1940s, when World War II and a national housing shortage slowed development. But by the mid-1960s, Wyman Heights was fully developed, with midcentury modern homes filling in the gaps. 

“I always have to explain that the house numbers are totally out of order,” says resident Cathy Katzenberger, who loves the area’s peace and quiet, perfect views, and combination of seclusion and accessibility. “It’s because the neighborhood started with great big lots. Then, through the years as people sold off parts of their lots, new numbers were put in.”

Katzenberger has lived in the neighborhood for 27 years, in two different houses. She grew up in nearby Minne Lusa and was always determined that someday she would live “up on the hill.” Her current abode is informally known as the Hayden House (not to be confused with the welcome center on UNO’s campus), named for Dave Hayden, proprietor of Omaha restaurants from days of yore, such as the Birchwood Club and Silver Lining Restaurant.

“This [neighborhood] originally started off as the weekend country retreat for people who lived in central Omaha—now we’re talking back in the old days,” says Katzenberger, who recalls the hill being home to “all the fancy people.”

Between the stunning views and architectural diversity, Wyman Heights was indeed a magnet for Omaha’s interesting and elite, just as Wyman envisioned. According to Restoration Exchange Omaha, the neighborhood was home to many a local movers and shakers, including Claude Reed, owner of Reed’s Ice Cream; William Sealock, president of the Municipal University of Omaha, originally located at 24th and Pratt streets and now known as University of Nebraska at Omaha; Harry Shackelford, Nebraska State District Attorney; and Genevieve Detwiler, prominent socialite and local proponent of the Girl Scouts. 

Roger and Jody duRand

Wyman Heights retained its allure into the ’60s, attracting prominent residents like mayor Gene Leahy and artist Tom Palmerton.     

“[The neighborhood] was filled with successful, smart, interesting people,” duRand recalls.

While the neighborhood has become more economically diverse, duRand says Wyman Heights hasn’t changed too much—still offering its lovely views and solid, neighborly network. 

“If you can find a house up here, you’re lucky. It’s a safe neighborhood and the neighbors are wonderful,” duRand says. “It’s nice to be able to look back all these years and see how it’s changed yet how it’s stayed the same.”

Katzenberger is pleased to see traditions like the annual neighborhood party endure, while several young families have moved into the neighborhood and livened it up with a new generation of kids at play.

“We’ve got very good neighbors. People are connected here,” says Katzenberger, noting that despite the lack of through traffic, children’s lemonade stands always do very well, as the neighbors all make a point to stop for a glass.

Katzenberger and duRand appreciate the unique blend of pastoral respite and urban access that comes with living in Wyman Heights.   

“We’re so close to everything, yet we can sit outside and hear nothing but birds…see a fox running through the yard, or deer walking up the middle of the street,” duRand says. “It’s the best of both worlds.”

Despite Wyman Heights’ affluent roots, duRand says there’s no pretension here.   

“People here are really just being themselves—and we all are very different,” she says. “It’s classy, but very eclectic. We all have love for the neighborhood and that’s what stabilizes us. If one person has a tree fall in their yard, all of us are there to help; we’re all watching out for each other.”

Restoration Exchange Omaha’s Wyman Heights neighborhood tour takes place Oct. 1 from noon to 5 p.m. Visit facebook.com/restorationexchange for more details.

This article appeared in the September/October 2017 edition of Omaha Home.

Florence and the Political Machine

May 10, 2017 by
Photography by Provided by Douglas County Historical Society

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Omaha’s annexation of Florence—the historic and scenic riverfront community on the far northeast reaches of our city. The milestone warrants a look back at this contentious time in Florence’s history, when its rapidly rising southern neighbor unapologetically gobbled up the settlement despite the objections of many residents.

Why Annex Florence?

It helps to understand a bit of the community’s history. Best known as the site of Winter Quarters, the settlement for thousands of Mormon pioneers making their way West during the 1840s, Florence became a “city” in 1855 when Iowa businessman James C. Mitchell and his surveying team platted the land and officially incorporated.

Florence Kilbourn was the namesake of Florence, though her lineage is unclear. She has been referred to as the adopted niece of Mitchell’s wife or the granddaughter of Mitchell’s wife (depending on the historical account).

Mitchell recognized the busy frontier town’s big potential due to its convenient proximity to the Missouri River and frequent ferry service. The river’s narrow profile—at just 300 yards—and its solid-rock bottom just east of Florence also made it the most natural place to build a future bridge.

In the 1860s and ’70s, Florence grew into a bustling, young city. Early industry included a flour mill, brick manufacturing plant, lumber sawmill, and blacksmith shop, to name a few. Its population swelled well above 3,000, and its economy boomed.

Ana Somers, research specialist at the Douglas County Historical Society, says pressure for Omaha to annex surrounding municipalities really began in 1910 with the Greater Omaha Proclamation. “This was a direct response to the growth crises of 1910 that created a need to annex neighboring towns and villages,” Somers says.

But by early 1915, despite high tax levies, Florence began finding it fiscally difficult to meet community needs. Business leaders in Florence began fearing for the financial solvency of the city moving forward. At the same time, Omaha was building a strong reputation as a Midwestern hub of business and industry. Most members of the Omaha Commercial Club, an organization of area business owners and leaders, became proponents of Florence’s annexation for the “great savings to the taxpayers” it would provide through reduced redundancies in government, and they claimed such action would “provide residents with more benefits, not fewer.”

With the Merger Bill of 1915, the State of Nebraska passed a controversial law allowing Omaha to annex neighboring communities unilaterally, providing these areas lie adjacent to current city boundaries, are situated within Douglas County, and have fewer than 10,000 residents.

A legal battle followed, with representatives from Dundee and South Omaha opposing the decision. Omaha was poised to annex Florence, but lawsuits to the Nebraska Supreme Court left the possibility in limbo.

Some in Florence, fearing taxation without representation, were convinced to join the pro-annexation cause after being assured they would have a Florence representative in city government. The Omaha Commercial Club appointed a committee to explore annexation further, then held a public meeting in January 1916. According to newspaper accounts, 76 in attendance voted in favor, while only nine voted against it. Although the club had hoped to complete annexation by the May 1916 election, it took more than a year longer for it to come to fruition.

Even train cars full of anti-annexation protestors from Florence, Benson, South Omaha and elsewhere flooding the state capitol in Lincoln during hearings could not kill the law. The fight dragged on for two years, until Feb. 14, 1917, when the Nebraska Supreme Court finally dismissed a lawsuit on behalf of the once-independent Dundee.

Confirmation of the new law was a welcome development to then-mayor of Omaha James Dahlman, or “Cowboy Jim,” as he was called, who saw it as a prime opportunity for his administration to grow the city quickly and gain tax revenue. The law allowed for the huge expansion of Omaha later that year with the annexation of Florence and Benson on June 6, 1917, while sealing the fate of South Omaha and Dundee.

According to an article in the Omaha World-Herald dated June 10, 1917, city officials reported the annexation of Florence and Benson expanded the city to 38 square miles. For reference, the present-day City of Omaha occupies roughly 127 square miles (according to the U.S. Census in 2010). Boundaries of the former City of Florence had been Read Street, 40th Street, Florence Heights Boulevard, and the Missouri River.

During subsequent years, the annexation law has been nicknamed “Omaha’s secret weapon,” allowing for continual expansion of its city limits, year after year.

The Dissenters

Not all of Florence was convinced annexation was the best option. Among those in opposition: Florence’s mayor, Freeman Tucker, was concerned for the “political integrity of the village.” He vowed to take his fight against annexation all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (though he never did). Another dissenter was Dr. Carr, a prominent local dentist and investor who feared that annexation would reduce the likelihood that Florence would be the site of a promised river bridge, says Rosemary Allen, a longtime member of the Florence Historical Foundation.

“There were concerns about a lot of promises [made by the city] not being delivered on, including security and safety services, such as a rescue squad. And, in fact, a lot was promised but never materialized,” Allen says.

“As I recall, the citizens of Florence didn’t end up having much to say about it all. It was just sort of pushed through. It was a very contentious thing,” she explains. “I do know there were a lot of residents who weren’t happy about it one bit, with some public meetings almost erupting into fist fights. And even years later, there were those that remained bitter about it.”

Allen says residents of Florence were also fearful that annexation would mean the loss of the community’s identity and important history. And in fact, through the years, many of the historic structures from its pioneer town days fell to ruin from neglect, fire, or normal decay.

Years later, it became the mission of the Florence Historical Foundation to keep its historic sites alive and maintain community pride—a mission the foundation has found great success with, preserving many historic landmarks, including the Fire Barn, Keirle House, Depot Museum, Bank of Florence, and Mormon Bridge Toll House. The foundation coordinates the annual Florence Days every May as well as other entertainment and holiday events.

The independently restored Florence Mill and another community group, Florence Futures, also collaborate on community and heritage initiatives. The neighborhood on North 30th Street has witnessed an uptick in activity in recent years, thanks in part to a lively restaurant scene. Blooming flowers (planted by the Northern Lights Garden Club) accent the booming streetscape.

The North Omaha Commercial Club—no relation to the historic Omaha Commercial Club that advocated for Florence’s annexation—is one of Omaha’s oldest civic groups, where Florence business owners meet regularly to discuss ways to keep the corridor alive and thriving. All celebrate the small-town and family-friendly feel of this unique river city community.

Despite being in the shadow of the Big O for nearly a century, Florence maintains an identity and appeal all its own.

Florence Days takes place on the second full weekend of May, with a parade Saturday. Visit historicflorence.org for more information. Archival resources provided by the Omaha Public Library archives of the Omaha World-Herald (omahalibrary.org) and the Douglas County Historical Society (douglascohistory.org).

This article printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Home.

Sentimental Journey

May 3, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Michael Heaton had a royal curiosity, which he ultimately satisfied by buying a palace.

Eleven years ago, Heaton and partner Barry Burt happily occupied an adorable English Tudor home in Florence, which they had lovingly remodeled. That’s when the Chiodo Palace came calling.

“I never thought we’d leave [the Florence house], but my friend Christy, who’d just started with NP Dodge, said ‘Michael, you’ve got to come look at this amazing house with me,’” Heaton says. “So, we came to look four times and would just sit on the floor fantasizing about living here…then we just went for it. I’ve never regretted it. It’s been an adventure.”

The Chiodo Palace, near 25th and Leavenworth, was built in 1922 by Vincenzo Pietro Chiodo. Burt and Heaton, together nearly 20 years, have worked diligently to preserve the legacy of one of one of Omaha’s more unique, storied homes since purchasing it in 2006.

Chiodo immigrated from Southern Italy to the United States in 1885 at age 16. He studied in Chicago before settling in Omaha, where he operated a tailor shop, then found his fortune in real estate.

“He owned 50 homes in the area,” Heaton says. “This was one of many he built, and his primary residence.”

According to the Nebraska State Historical Society, Chiodo wasn’t so much an architect or builder himself, but he had ample vision and funds to support the proliferation of his real estate empire.

“He was billed the first Italian millionaire in Omaha and was also very politically active,” Heaton says.

In fact, Chiodo was an Elk and a fourth-degree Knight of Columbus. His titles included Italian Vice Consul of Omaha, State Supreme Deputy of the Sons of Italy, Knight of the House of Savoy, and Cavalier of the Order of St. Gregory.

Heaton lights up when sharing stories of days gone by in his abode, many of which were relayed by longtime neighbor Angelo Bonacci, now deceased, who worked at the Chiodo Palace as a young man when it functioned as the consulate.

“Chiodo was very popular, and described as an elegant man,” Heaton says. “He could be seen walking the neighborhood and his domain wearing a long, white fur coat. When the Santa Lucia Festival parade made its way through the neighborhood, they always stopped in front of the Chiodo Palace and saluted Vincenzo, who’d be sitting up on his veranda. You can just picture him up there with the crowds passing by.”

“‘Chiodo Palace’ is what Angelo said they called it,” says Heaton, who believes the moniker comes from “palazzo”—Italian for a large, palatial building.

Chiodo passed away in 1949 at age 80, but his grand domicile lived on to weather years of general dirt and disrepair, water damage, and updates like ill-placed drop ceilings and gaudy, yellow wallpaper that spoiled or obscured the home’s unique character and verve.

Heaton and Burt, who are members of Restoration Exchange Omaha, purchased the house to preserve its history.

“We knew it had been an important house in the past and, seeing the sad condition, we thought we could have some fun, restore its appeal, and get the history back as much as possible,” Heaton says.

For Heaton, who owns and operates Legacy Art & Frame in Dundee, preserving historical homes and objects is a longtime interest.

“The house is a mix of styles,” he says. “The outside is very Craftsman. There’s some Italianate detail with the dentil molding around the tops of the eaves. The stained-glass windows are a mix: Some [feature] traditional designs, but in the dining room there’s a very Frank Lloyd Wright Mission-style design. So, there are unexpected elements here and there.”

The interior swims with stunning, rich mahogany woodwork, accented by a striking fireplace constructed of rough-hewn, imported Burmese stone. Colorful, original tile surrounds the floor of the fireplace, featuring a horseshoe that’s open into the room and closed toward the hearth.

“That was to deter unwanted spirits from entering the home through the fireplace,” Heaton says.

In the sunroom above another fireplace, a large painting in memoriam to Chiodo’s wife and daughter, both named Caroline, remains molded right onto the wall.

Ornate, hand-painted, original murals on linen grace the tops of walls throughout the main floor.

“Each of these murals depicts different aspects of Italian culture and Roman life,” Heaton says of the incredible illustrations of accolades, life phases, arts, animals, and plants.

“I love these dragons,” Heaton says, zeroing in on a mural. “They’re griffins, protectors of the empire, and their protection allows wealth and prosperity to extend from them, so they turn into these leaves. I’m just so glad no one ever ruined them.”

Part of one dining room mural suffered water damage prior to his ownership, so Heaton completely—and 100 percent convincingly—reconstructed it.

“I rebuilt the wall, put linen on the top, created a stencil off another wall, transferred it, and then, over about four weeks, hand-painted it,” he says.

With the scope of work Heaton puts into his home and a handful of rental properties, you’d think he had extensive training, but no. He says just the occasional HGTV show or YouTube video help him complete home projects.

“My grandfather was a real hands-on kind of guy, so I learned lots about working with wood, building, and fixing from watching him,” Heaton says. “He could do it all, so I just kind of hung out with him a lot.”

Like Heaton and Burt, Chiodo himself preserved Omaha history.

“Chiodo was a preservationist way ahead of his time,” Heaton says. “He got the salvage rights to the original county jail and courthouse, and used all of the marble, stones, cobblestones, and other materials he harvested from that in several of his other properties.”

We’ll never know whether Chiodo was a sentimental preservationist, simply a cunning businessman, or perhaps both. As for Heaton, that case is closed.

“I’m painfully sentimental,” he says. “That’s my inspiration.”

Visit Legacy Art & Frame on Facebook for more information about the homeowners’ business.

This article appears in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Home.

Nebraska’s Capital

January 25, 2017 by
Photography by Contributed

When Nebraska achieved statehood on March 1, 1867, it was the turning point in a 12-year-long, bitter, and sometimes violent struggle to move the capital from Omaha to…well, anywhere except Omaha.

“Divisiveness festered the moment Congress organized the Nebraska Territory on May 30, 1854. The first territorial governor, Francis Burt, arrived in October to determine the capital’s location. In ill health, Burt was besieged by “every influential man in the territory”—especially those with large landholdings in fledgling towns near the Missouri River. Though Burt appeared to favor Bellevue, a more established settlement predating Omaha, he died just 10 days later and “sought in the grave that repose which it was evident he could never find in Nebraska,” according to James Savage and John Bell in their 1894 book, History of Omaha.

“Our pioneer urban developers knew getting the seat of government would help drive their community’s economy. There was no tax base, and they needed all the federal money they could get,” says Harl Dalstrom, retired history professor, University of Nebraska at Omaha. “Even today we may complain about federal spending, but it becomes legitimate and welcome when the dollars come our way.”

The battle for the capital took shape on both sides of the Platte River, a geographical barrier for people north and south of it, and a political dividing line. The Kansas-Nebraska Act that created the Nebraska Territory also focused on slavery’s expansion. The act would destroy Democratic unity in 1860; it split the U.S. into two political parties, with Republicans primarily in the north and Democrats in the south.

Using the Platte as a line of demarcation, Thomas Cuming, territorial secretary and acting governor, divided the Nebraska Territory into eight counties: four north and four south of the river. Although a census showed more people lived south of the Platte, Cuming announced the first legislative session would convene in Omaha.

capital

A rising young Iowa Democrat, Cuming undoubtedly was influenced by his ties to Council Bluffs and his landholdings in Omaha. “Both cities were interdependent as the West expanded. It’s unlikely Omaha would have existed without its ties to Council Bluffs,” says Dalstrom. The Council Bluffs and Nebraska Ferry Co. supported Cuming’s decision, offering its meeting house on Ninth Street between Farnam and Douglas streets for the session beginning Jan. 16, 1855.

Rancor soon was apparent, with delegates from Bellevue and south of the Platte arriving dressed as Indians, wearing red blankets “to indicate their ‘savage’ intentions toward Cuming,” according to Upstream: An Urban Biography of Metropolis Omaha & Council Bluffs, co-authored by Lawrence Larsen, Barbara Cottrell, and Harl and Kay Calame Dalstrom.

Cuming ignored the blanketed delegates. A.J. Hanscom, unofficial leader of the Omaha delegation, was elected Speaker of the House, supported by his friend, Andrew Jackson Poppleton, a master of debate and parliamentary skill. Buoyed by rich Omahans who bribed delegates with money, land, and promises, the two led a joint resolution on Feb. 22, 1855, naming Omaha the capital, with the ferry company’s meeting house becoming the first capitol building.

The second territorial capitol was built in 1857 on the site of today’s Central High School at 20th and Dodge streets. Scarcely had the mortar set when Omaha’s adversaries introduced a bill in January 1858 that would move the capital to a new, non-existent town. Omaha did not have enough votes to stop it, so Hanscom and Poppleton began a carefully orchestrated showdown using parliamentary procedure, writes David Bristow in A Dirty, Wicked Town: Tales of 19th Century Omaha.

Through a technicality, Poppleton succeeded in getting Nebraska City’s James Decker, the new House Speaker and an Omaha foe, out of the speaker’s chair, and temporarily replaced him with J. Sterling Morton, an Omaha ally. Intending to filibuster until time ran out on the session’s remaining eight days, the Omaha contingent drew the wrath of Decker, who vowed to regain the chair “or die trying.”

Decker attempted to pry the gavel from the chair’s occupant, then tried to tip him out. Hanscom engaged Decker in a tug-of-war, igniting a brawl with bloody noses and black eyes too numerous to mention, writes Bristow. On the following morning, the anti-Omaha crowd adjourned to Florence (then its own city) and carried a motion to move the legislature there. However, Acting Governor Cuming refused to recognize the Florence legislature, supported by incoming Gov. William Richardson.

The struggle to relocate the capital continued year after year until December 1866, when the U.S. Congress passed a resolution naming Nebraska as the country’s 37th state, effective March 1, 1867. President Andrew Johnson opposed the statehood and vetoed the bill. But Congress overrode it, the only time in U.S. history that a statehood bill became law over a presidential veto, writes Tammy Partsch in It Happened in Nebraska: Remarkable Events that Shaped History.

To placate those south of the Platte River who were considering annexation to Kansas, the legislature voted to place the capital city in Lancaster County. Prior to the vote, Omaha Sen. J.N.H. Patrick attempted to thwart the move by naming the future capital city after recently assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. It was assumed Democrats would not support a capital named after the Republican president, but the Removal Act successfully passed in May 1867.

Gov. David Butler and others toured sites and, by September, had zeroed in on the village of Lancaster, renaming it Lincoln. The state capitol building was completed Dec. 1, 1868, but despite the intervening months, nothing had been done in Omaha to prepare for the move. Many officials, including Butler, didn’t believe Omaha’s citizens would let the capital go.

So, during an evening snowstorm in late December 1868, men surreptitiously entered the Omaha capitol and cleared it of all documents, deeds, and certificates related to the governance of Nebraska, writes Partsch. By midnight the men and pack horses departed, spiriting the documents to Lincoln’s new capitol building, where the Nebraska Legislature would meet within a month. Like the history preceding it, the change was made under a cloud of politics and controversy.

Visit nebraskahistory.org for more information.

Self-Made, Self-Taught, Self-Assured

December 11, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

An interior designer would have to possess an abundance of chutzpah to place a Paul Bunyan-sized silver chalice vase filled with giant sprays of faux white flowers in the middle of a hotel lobby. Eric James not only pulled it off, he pulled everything together inside Omaha’s Hotel Deco XV.

EricJames1

Taking his cue from the name of the historic boutique hotel at 15th and Harney streets, James created a wonderland of Art Deco décor that transports a visitor to a time synonymous with elegance and a post-World War I “anything goes” mentality. “It’s early 1930s glam and glitz, one of the highlights of my career so far,” says James, 40.

Clean lines, geometric patterns, bold accessories, and lots of mirrors surrounded by a sea of black and white, chrome and crystal, offer a stunning look into the past with a decidedly modern twist. Small crystal beads that cover one wall, a sheath of tufted velvet on another wall, and sofa pillows in hues of gray with raised fabric designs reveal James’ eye for a variety of textures.

The designer’s balancing act is evident in the accessories and sculpted art pieces found on tables, stairwell ledges, and window sills: white beside black, tall beside small, round beside square.

EricJames3

“As I’ve developed my business, I’ve become very good at fabrics and florals, two of the hardest things to do,” James says. “To get a style to flow with fabrics and flowers is difficult, but for some reason it comes naturally to me.”

Born Eric James Seymour in the Ponca Hills/Florence section of Omaha, the boy who toyed with the idea of becoming a marine biologist found he had a knack for taking his mother’s old decorations to create a unique, functional space in his bedroom. Pretty soon, family and friends started asking for his help with their houses.

“I’m a self-taught person, very hands-on. I imagine the whole space and then just do it,” he says. “It’s my passion.”

After spending two years in management and sales at the now-closed Z Gallerie at Village Pointe, James 10 years ago started his own business, Interiors by Eric James, and dove in headfirst.

EricJames2

Traditional? Sure. Contemporary? Absolutely. Funky? Why not? Rustic? No prob.

“I’m working on a farmhouse in rural Iowa that started as a kitchen remodel and has turned into a whole house remodel,” James says. “We built an all-season room with raw wood flooring—knots and cracks and all. The room has exposed beams throughout, a wall of jagged stone, two oil-rubbed bronze chandeliers, and high-back wing chairs of cowhide. Very unique.”

One of James’ greatest assets involves the ability to listen to a client.

“I asked him to style our house and his ability to interpret our wishes and bring them to fruition was awesome,” raves Chris Hamilton, a hair stylist. She says James preferred to work while they were out of the house, “so when we walked in, the transformation was just incredible.”

James’ upbeat, positive personality, his willingness to please a client (“I never argue with people,” he says), his eclectic designer palette, and “reasonable prices” keep new and repeat customers calling.

“I’ve never had an unhappy client,” he says. “If I did, I couldn’t sleep at night.”  OmahaHome

Visit interiorsbyericjames.com to learn more.

EricJames4

Loyalty and Pride

February 8, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Ron Dotzler asked his future in-laws for permission to marry their daughter, her mother said no.

“No? Why?”

“Because you’re white.”

Dotzler grew up in rural Iowa, in a small town of about 300 people. “No diversity whatsoever until I went to college and played basketball. Met my wife, fell in love with her…” He shrugs. “I had no clue.”

After a few years of a successful career as a chemical engineer, starting a family, and building a brand new house out west, things settled down. Then Dotzler and his wife Twany announced they were moving to North Omaha as a sort of pit stop before serving overseas in missions. “Her mother went off on me,” Dotzler recalls. “‘We did all we could to get our daughter out of the ghetto, and you’re taking her back?’”

They’ve lived in North Omaha 25 years now. The Dotzlers never did make it overseas.

Instead, the couple works alongside a small staff and a large roster of volunteers as the Abide Network. The organization is one of many groups in the North Omaha area working to infuse neighborhoods north of Cuming Street and east of I-680 with new work, new homes, and new empowerment.

Its reputation

JoAnna LeFlore, interim program director of Bemis Center’s Carver Bank art gallery at 24th and Lake, calls these pockets of activity “bubbles.” “Brigitte over at The Union is a bubble,” she says, referring to Brigitte McQueen, director of the artist residency program at 24th and Burdette. “Love’s Jazz is a bubble. The Empowerment Network. We’re a bubble. If you didn’t grow up in North Omaha, you have no idea what vibrancy is here.”

It’s true that Omahans outside of the vague borders of North Omaha have a certain perception of the area. LeFlore recalls an exchange she had with a bank teller from Bennington after she read LeFlore’s business card. “24th and Lake?” the woman asked. “Isn’t that a bad neighborhood?”

“I just…I took a minute,” LeFlore says with a tired laugh. “And I said, ‘Why would you think that?’ And she said, ‘One of my friends is a police officer, and he told me not to go to that neighborhood.’” LeFlore reverted to her default reaction whenever she runs across someone who relates hearsay. “I listened, and I let her talk.” She pauses. “And then I just told her to come down to Carver Bank and get a sandwich at Big Mama’s.”

The sandwich shop next door to Carver Bank’s gallery and studio space is popular with Creighton students. Grace Krause, a graphic design graduate from Creighton University, has been an intern at Carver Bank for a couple weeks. “I grew up in North Omaha, kind of in the Florence area. I’ve always been a defendant of North Omaha. It’s a really great place; it just has a bad rap.”

JoAnna LeFlore is the interim program director of Bemis Center’s Carver Bank art gallery at 24th and Lake.

JoAnna LeFlore is the interim program director of Bemis Center’s Carver Bank art gallery at 24th and Lake.

LeFlore agrees. “Yes, there are things that happen in this neighborhood that are regrettable, but they also happen all over the city.”

Stats collected by the Abide Network suggest that, while violent crimes do happen all over the city, North Omaha still bears the brunt of them. Dotzler keeps a map covered in red pushpins for every murder (“It’s approximately 820 total”) that’s happened in the city in the 25 years he’s lived in North Omaha. “As you can see, two thirds of them take place right here,” he says, pointing to the area north of Dodge and east of 50th Street.

Its goals

However, Krause’s comments reflect another side of North Omaha, one that statisticians can’t discount. “When you meet people from North Omaha, they’re exceedingly loyal and proud of where they’re from,” says Othello Meadows, lawyer by profession, community developer by chance, and North Omahan by birth. “You always have this feeling of, like I owe something to where I grew up.” His work in Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corporation offers what he calls the best of both worlds. “It’s challenging work intellectually, but there’s also this greater good we’re trying to achieve.”

Through Seventy-Five North, Meadows wants to bring three elements of greater good to North Omaha: high-quality, mixed-income housing; a cradle-to-college educational pipeline; and a network of community services.

“Neighborhoods with good economic diversity are more resilient and economically stable,” Meadows says. “And we’ll create that with a combination of for-sale and for-rent homes.” That means multi-family apartments, single-family homes, and duplexes.

“When you meet people from North Omaha, they’re exceedingly loyal and proud of where they’re from.”
—Othello Meadows

The mixed-income housing is probably the closest of Seventy-Five North’s goals to becoming a reality. The organization owns 23 empty acres where a project called Pleasantview stood near 30th and Parker Streets when Meadows was a child. “If you grew up here, you knew about it,” he says. “It was a really tough place.” When he moved back from practicing law in Georgia in 2008, “they were tearing it down. The cost to rehab it was way more than it was to tear it down. Twenty-three acres with nothing on it. Kind of a rare find.” He plans to break ground on a new apartment building before 2015.

Dotzler, on the other hand, says moving away from rented housing is what the area needs. “Seventy percent of these homes are rental,” he says, referring to the neighborhood where Abide Network is based, “owned by landlords who receive money through Section 8 housing. There’s a reason it’s a good business,” he says. “It’s just bad for our community. Fifty-eight percent of rentals are owned by somebody outside of the community.” Dotzler says that rental properties move people around constantly, making a community lack stability.

Interestingly, lack of stability is what Meadows wants to solve as well but with a combination of rental and market-price homes. “Right now,” he says, “you can’t build a house for what you’d be able to sell it. It’s different to have houses that someone can qualify for versus someone who can pay market rate.”

“It’s important for people to have an option to stay here,” LeFlore agrees, though she also would prefer to see more home ownership in the next five years. 
“Jobs, living situations. Anything that celebrates what’s good will keep people living here.” She adds that another item on her five-year wish list for North Omaha is a strong community development organization. “Something like Othello’s doing,” she says, referring to Seventy-Five North. “Other cities do it. They engage the neighborhoods that exist, and they engage the city to redevelop the neighborhood. So I think in five years that needs to happen. There is no excuse. I think it’s urgent.”

For Dotzler, one point of urgency is neighborhood safety. “The police would tell you a cleaner neighborhood is a safer neighborhood,” Dotzler says, “so let’s mow lawns, let’s pick up trash, let’s fix broken windows, let’s paint over graffiti.” To that end, the Abide Network has for the last six years been steadily “adopting” small blocks of neighborhoods, about 20-25 houses with perhaps four people per house.

The red, dotted line indicates the 23 vacant acres where Pleasantview used to stand and where Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp. plans to break ground with new apartments by early 2015.

The red, dotted line indicates the 23 vacant acres where Pleasantview used to stand and where Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp. plans to break ground with new apartments by early 2015.

As Meadows says, “North Omaha is a huge geographic area. It’s critical to take a manageable bite. The person who says they’re going to change North Omaha is nuts. You have to say we’re going to go to work in this neighborhood. And then hopefully you can establish a model that’s replicable.”

That’s just what Abide Network is doing. Since that first block six years ago, the organization has adopted about 100 such neighborhoods, visiting at least once a month to address the fixes that Dotzler lists. They’d like to reach over 700.

Its determination

“We see a lot of emphasis on affordable housing, a lot of emphasis on education, a lot on community services,” Meadows says of the various programs working in North Omaha, “but independently, these don’t get a neighborhood to turn a corner and stay around that corner. You can’t implement these things in any kind of isolated fashion. They really have to work together.”

In fact, one of the reasons the old Pleasantview plot was so attractive to Seventy-Five North (in addition to the vacant 23 acres) was the existence of several already-strong community partners. Meadows lists off just a few: Charles Drew, a federally qualified low-income health-care provider; Salem Baptist Church, the largest African-American congregation in the state; and Urban League of Nebraska, which provides services from job training to parent education.

“It’s our role to coordinate the support that our residents can look forward to,” Meadows says. Housing, education, and services—those elements working together, he says, are what will turn the boat around in North Omaha.

“A small organization like Carver or The Union can only do so much,” LeFlore agrees. “To really market an area of the city, it has to be a communal effort. It has to be a commitment from—well, I don’t know who to put at the table. It’s everyone’s job. Find your place and sit there. Get to the table and have a seat.” She laughs but there’s an element of no-nonsense. “Don’t point the finger and don’t be the naysayer.” LeFlore says she’s tired of hearing ‘We tried that 20 years ago, and it didn’t work.’

“Maybe someone who you meet now can you help you do it right,” she says. “You have to be humble to start a movement. Your ego has to be gone.”